Do-It-Yourself Program Design

If you started training at a young age, chances are you never followed a structured program. Instead you just had some simple goals in mind. Whether it was to squat three wheels or bench two bills, you wanted to get somewhere no matter what it took.

You didn't periodize your training, try different exercises, use Time Under Tension or monitor your rest periods. Your only goal was to keep piling on weights, week after week, until you achieved that goal. Now, I'm certainly not saying we need to follow a program based on ninth grade intuition, but if we carefully employ a well-thought out and progressive program, we can achieve goals we may currently view as out of reach.

The problem is that as we get older, too many of us simply keep doing what we did when we were younger: get on someone else's program, follow it half-heartedly (while still expecting results), not see the results we desire, and then become frustrated and follow the loop with a different training program.

What I'm going to do here is educate you, the avid T-Nation reader, on the key variables involved in program design. After reading this article, you'll be able to write your own programs based on your personal needs and goals!

Sets and reps are the nuts and bolts when it comes to training but when it comes to changing them, most trainees accept change about as well as hard-line conservatives in politics.

How many times in the gym have you heard someone say, "Yeah, I'm doing three sets of eight" or something similar? The fact is that not only are they ignoring all the other factors I'll present to you later, but the only real "variable" in their program is the weight! (And this really isn't variable at all because most of the time it never seems to change!) They'll continue to pump away with their three sets of eight reps until they finally stall out, plateau, and then remove themselves from the gym for the next two months. At this time they'll start up again with the same 3 x 8 scheme and achieve the same dubious results.

Imagine that you're setting up a program, but don't want to follow the 3 x 8 dogma simply because every other person in your gym is using it. Below is a very general breakdown of how many repetitions you should be performing per set to help you achieve your goals.

Reps per Set for Specific Goal (Goal—Reps)

  • Max Strength: 1-3
  • Strength, Speed or Power: 1-6
  • Functional Hypertrophy: 4-8
  • Structural Hypertrophy: 8-12
  • Endurance: 12-13

Now, of course there's going to be some wiggle room with these numbers, but it's meant to be used as a guideline. For example, it's well documented that those who've been training for an extended period of time need fewer reps to accrue gains in muscle size. On the other hand, beginners may see very little hypertrophic gains for up to three months after initiating training simply because their gains will be due to improvements in inter- and intra-muscular coordination rather than muscle size. Part of the battle here is a little experimentation on your part and knowing what your body responds to best.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have sets. It's a generally accepted principle that as you increase the reps you must decrease the sets and vice versa. Below is a general guideline on how the number of sets you perform can influence your training:

Sets for Specific Goal (Goal—Sets)

  • Max Strength: 8-12
  • Strength, Speed or Power: 6-8
  • Functional Hypertrophy: 4-6
  • Structural Hypertrophy: 2-4
  • Endurance: 2-3

(Adapted from Poliquin, 1997)

When you use fewer reps per set, you can increase the intensity per set. Keep in mind that intensity isn't always measured in load; it can be load-specific or velocity-specific. Let me give you some examples:

  • A 5 x 5 routine with the load being approximately 80%. This not only allows us to train at a higher percentage of our 1RM (one rep max), but it affords us more total reps at that load because our repetitions per set are fairly low.
  • A 10 x 2 routine with the load somewhere between 40 and 60% of 1RM. This is the program used by Louie Simmons and Dave Tate at Westside on their dynamic effort days. This allows us to focus on speed as well as performing more first reps (e.g. focus on technique).
  • A 6 x 3 routine with the load between 25 and 35% of 1RM. Dr. Robert Newton (one of the premiere researchers in power production) has found in his research that this is the optimal load for improving power output in ballistic movements such as the jump squat or bench throw.

So you can see that even though the reps may be low, the strength qualities we're training can be quite different. On the flip side, higher reps per set requires us to lower the overall training intensity. The main exception to this rule is a 10 x 10 shock routine for an exercise such as bench, pull-ups, squats, etc. Keep in mind, however, this is the exception, not the rule. If you trained like this for an extended period of time you'd be admitted to the "overtraining ward" that's already filled beyond capacity at your local gym!

Authors such as Poliquin and King really brought the idea of TUT (Time Under Tension) to the forefront in the strength training community. Just like all variables, TUT can be manipulated dependent upon our current and long term goals. Below is a table with a few examples that'll help you better understand TUT.

Goal Tempo TUT per Rep
Speed/Power/Max Strength ~1-5 sec. 1-0-X
Max Strength/Functional End Hypertrophy 2-0-1 3 sec.
Structural End Hypertrophy 3-1-3 7 sec.
Stability/Control 8-0-4 12 sec.

Granted, these are only four examples, but they should give you a better idea of how you can manipulate TUT to reach your goals. Keep in mind that TUT is a means to an end: our goal with TUT is to elicit a certain amount of stimulation (increased tension) to a muscle to force it to adapt. For example, the first tempo (1-0-X) could be used for ballistic or speed work which would be very fast and elicit a great deal of high-velocity tension, or it can be used as a tempo for 1RM's. The tension would again be very high (low velocity tension) but not because of the speed of the effort, but simply because the weights are really heavy!

Before we go on, let's further examine TUT. When we change the TUT, we're in essence changing the speed at which we move the weight. There's a direct relationship between the velocity at which we're moving the weight and the maximal amount of tension we can produce. The force velocity curve tells us that as the velocity of movement is increased, the maximal force we can produce is decreased.

The opposite is also true: the slower a weight is moved, the more tension can be produced. Again, let's go back to our 1RM. It's rare you see a maximal squat or deadlift performed quickly. Some lifters are simply more explosive than others, and I guarantee no one is trying to move the weight slowly, but this is the way things work. Zatsiorsky defines moving a sub-maximal weight with the highest attainable speed as the dynamic effort method of training.

What does this mean to you? If you're interested in being explosive or playing sports, you need a mix of both high and low velocity work in your training program. Think about a tight end in football. You need the explosive work to improve your ability to come off the line and hit someone and you need the low velocity work to drive your man off the line and shed tacklers.

Another thing to keep in mind with regards to sports is that even though you have a lower capacity for improving tension at high velocities, this doesn't mean you can't improve it! For my thesis research we performed de-loaded jump training on our female volleyball athletes. We hung Jump Stretch bands over the ceiling rafters and strapped them into a harness so we could cut their bodyweight in half; our goal was to produce an overspeed effect. By unloading part of their body weight, we were making them more explosive and teaching the neuromuscular system to improve their ability to produce tension at high speeds.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, get far greater results from leaning towards the higher-tension, lower-velocity end of the spectrum. When you perform explosive movements, for the most part you have very little going for you: you're working at high speeds so your overall ability to produce tension isn't optimal, your TUT per rep is low, and so is your total TUT per set. You can make an argument for increasing the total sets, reps per set, etc., but the truth of the matter is that most of your battles should be fought in an area where you're either moving the weights fairly slowly (increasing TUT) or using maximal weights, therefore optimizing your ability to elicit maximal tension.

One other note I'd like to make here: don't forget the tension! Some people get so caught up in counting the time they're raising and lowering the weight that they forget to put any freaking weight on the bar! An example would be someone who can strictly press 75-pound dumbbells for eight reps at a 3-1-1 tempo, but instead of using 75's he's only using 45's and following the same tempo.

The key word in this phrase is tension. If you don't hit that mimimum level of tension (and exceed it), you won't be providing the neuromuscular system with adequate stimulus and definitely won't see the results you desire. Weight isn't always our main priority, especially if we're working to improve selective muscle recruitment, stability and control, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to add weight to the bar.

Most of the people I trained with as an undergrad never paid any attention to the amount of time they took between sets; it could've been 45 seconds or it could've been fifteen minutes. The fact is that the amount of time we rest is very important if we want to maximize the effects of our training. Below is a brief outline for some common rest periods:

Rest Period — Training Goal

  • 0-30 seconds: ~50% metabolic recovery
  • 30 seconds to 2 minutes: ~90% metabolic recovery
  • 2-3 minutes: Near complete metabolic recovery
  • 3-5 minutes: Near complete neural recovery
  • 5-10 minutes: Complete neural recovery

(Adapted from King, 2000)

What's the main premise here? If your rest periods aren't in-line with your training goals and/or if you aren't monitoring them, you won't see the same results as if you were! Here are some examples:

  • A powerlifter who's performing 2 x 2 at 95% of his 1RM in the squat. Instead of waiting and performing his reps in the five to ten minute bracket, he hurriedly trains and only waits two minutes between sets. Instead of easily hitting his second double, his body (and his confidence) is crushed by a weight he should own.
  • A trainee looking to see improvements in body composition and hypertrophy waits ten minutes between sets of pull-ups (instead of a more standard 30 to 120 seconds) because he's too busy talking with the spandex-encased women in his gym. He effectively destroys his training stimulus, gets frustrated, and stops coming to the gym.

Louie Simmons often cites the research of Angel Spassov, the former USSR weightlifting coach, in his writing. Coach Spassov concluded that workouts that lasted over an hour would be of little benefit to his athletes because at the hour mark, Testosterone levels dropped significantly and the production of cortisol went up. Coach Spassov went on to explain that Testosterone levels were at their peak between 20 and 50 minutes after the initiation of exercise. This is one of the primary reasons that shorter, more frequent workouts were employed by his lifters.

To sum this section up, if you're training for structural or hypertrophic gains, the majority of your rest periods should be in the 90 second to three minute range. If you're training for increases in functional or maximal strength, your rest periods should be in the three to ten minute range (at least for the primary or competitive exercises).

Yet another problem I frequently encounter when designing programs for people is that their exercise selection is atrocious. A quick note if you're a strength coach/personal trainer/rehabilitation expert: never underestimate the power of Muscle & Fiction and other fitness resources when it comes to the lay public!

I've seen men who are performing fifty sets of chest exercises per training day and women who were told to avoid squats because they'll make the legs "bigger" or "bulky." With this kind of thinking firmly entrenched, it's no wonder people get boxed into performing the same exercises and wonder why they aren't seeing any progress! As the old saying goes, "It makes no sense to do the same thing and expect different results!"

If someone comes to me and has been performing the same exercises over and over for years, the first thing I'll do is give them completely different exercises, even if the ones they were performing were good choices! The body (like the mind) responds well to change, as long as it isn't too frequent.

Let me explain that a little better. If you're changing your exercises every week (to keep your body "guessing"), it'll never have time to adjust and adapt accordingly to that new training stimulus. Your ideal, as a strength trainer, is to hit an exercise just enough to get everything you can out of it, and then move on. This could be anywhere from three to six weeks, and I'm guessing you probably have some idea of how long exercises work before you begin to plateau. This is an extremely important concept to employ for your assistance exercises.

I know what you're thinking: what about the core or staple exercises like squats, bench, pull-ups and the like? Take a second and think about it. If we're plugging away on the squats with the same TUT, set and rep scheme, rest period, etc., then sure, we probably won't see gains like we should (but we still might if we're choosing and cycling our assistance exercises appropriately). In this case, we need to stick with those exercises but change the other variables accordingly. Here's an example of a training cycle for someone wanting to drive up his squat:

Phase Sets & Reps TUT Rest Period Goal
Anatomical Adaptation 3-4 x 8-10 3-0-1 2 min. Structural gains
Intensification 3-5 x 5 2-0-1 3-4 min. Mix structural and functional gains
Pre-Competitive 2-3 x 2-3 1-0-X 5-10 min. Functional gains/Max strength

The key with your core exercises is, again, to keep changing things up. Keeping all the variables the same, time and again, ensures that your progress will come to a screeching halt sooner or later.

The order in which we train can have a significant impact on how well our bodies respond to our training programs. I'd hope in most training programs we wouldn't put our biceps work in front of our leg work, but how exactly should we lay out our exercises? Again, there are exceptions to every rule, but below is a continuum that should give you a good idea of how your program should be laid out:

Technique Work | Speed/Ballistic Work | Primary or Core Lifts | Supplemental or Accessory Lifts

Technique or technical work should always be performed first when the body is fresh and most efficient at learning. Trying to learn new exercises in a fatigued state is far from optimal (unless you already have excellent technique and are working on improving it in a fatigued state).

After our technical work, our speed and/or ballistic work should be performed next. Our "core" or big lifts should be performed third in this continuum, and the supplemental/accessory lifts are performed last. Another way of looking at this is that you want to perform the compound, multi-joint exercises which use the most musculature (squats and deads) and then progress to the isolation work that focuses on single muscle groups (such as curls or triceps extensions).

Below is a more specific continuum that includes actual lifts to give you a better idea.

Power Clean | Jump Squats | Snatch Grip Deadlifts | Glute Ham Raises

Probably the most notable exception to this rule is the off-season. For those of us who perform the same movements over and over again, one of the goals of the off-season is to balance our body and optimize our potential for future success. An example would be an elite bench presser starting off his routine with a row or external rotation work rather than the bench press. The goal is to produce balance between the opposing muscle groups, promote injury prevention and lay a foundation for future training.

I've saved the best for (almost) last. It should be stated here and now that load is the most powerful variable we have when it comes to our program design! It's a well-accepted principle that as load/intensity increases, the repetitions must decrease. For the most part, if you're consistently adding pounds to your lifts and using proper technique, chances are you're also seeing improvements in your strength and physique.

When we're discussing load/intensity, we're usually referring to external load, i.e. the weight on the bar and how it corresponds to our maximal capabilities (in this case our 1RM). Load/intensity is typically prescribed in one of two ways (we'll use someone with a 400-pound squat as an example):

  1. As a percentage of the 1RM (3 x 5 at 85% of 1RM).
  2. As a level of exertion that prescribes a specific number of reps per set (a 3 x 5-RM, where the fifth rep should be very difficult but still attainable).

There are pros and cons to both systems. The first option is very easy to prescribe and use with large numbers of athletes, although it fails to take into account the needs for each individual athlete. In other words, three sets of five reps at 85% may be very easy for someone with a more slow-twitch dominant make-up, where as someone with a very high percentage of fast-twitch fibers may burn out on the second or third rep.

On the other side, the RM method is just as easily prescribed, but takes more time and effort to ensure that all athletes are using it appropriately. One athlete may be using 320 pounds for his 5RM, whereas another may be using 340 pounds for his 5RM, even though both are 400-pound squatters when they perform a 1RM. This is totally natural and depends upon the fiber characteristics of the athlete, gender, current training status, and a host of other things. The RM method takes into account the needs of each specific individual or athlete, ensuring better overall success.

Below is a very simplistic continuum to give you a better idea of how your load/intensity affects your progress in training:

1-RM/100% 20-RM/10%
Max Strength  
  Motor Control

Again, there's wiggle room for all of these dependent upon the needs and goals of your program and training, but this should give you a good idea of how your load/intensity affects your training.

Recovery weeks (or planned weeks of decreased training) are one of the simplest things you can do to improve your training. Recovery weeks are usually allotted every four to six weeks, and their placement is mostly dependent upon how intense your training has been leading up to that week. Most think of a recovery week as a time when you don't train at all, eat whatever you want, and in general act like a total slob. This is far from the truth!

The purpose of a recovery week is to allow the improvements you've made in the last few weeks to come to fruition. Zatsiorsky defines this as delayed transformation. There are two main reasons why you need planned recovery weeks in your training:

  1. Your body needs time to adapt to the prior training stimulus.
  2. Your training incurs long-term fatigue, so by giving a recovery week you're allowing your body to realize the gains it's made but isn't showing yet.

He goes on to state that "adaptation occurs mainly when a retraining or detraining load is used after a stimulating load." In essence, the cumulative fatigue you've built up over the previous weeks or months is hiding your improvements!

Beyond the delayed training effects you get, there's also something to be said from the psychological aspect of all this. Simply put, coming into the gym and continually adding pounds to the bar is draining, both physically and mentally. A recovery week allows you to take a small step back so that in the following cycle you'll take several steps forward.

As a general rule, recovery weeks decrease the intensity of the workouts slightly, while greatly decreasing the volume of work that's performed. For example, you may only drop your weights by 10% from the previous week, but the total volume or number of reps you'll perform will drop by 40%. This is known as the rule of 60%.

Please also note the difference between a recovery week and an active rest week. In a recovery week you'll still be hitting the iron, the only difference will be a decrease in intensity and a fairly large decrease in volume. On the flip side, during an active rest week you shouldn't even think about the gym, let alone be hitting the iron!

The idea behind active rest is to keep you fresh mentally, as well as giving you time to perform other physical activities you enjoy (playing basketball, riding your bike, etc.) You'll be doing basic things to stay in shape, but staying out of the gym "rekindles the fire" so that when you go back in you have renewed vigor and focus. An active recovery week should be used every three or four months.

That's all the info you need to get started designing your own programs. The most important thing you need to do here is apply this information: write a program and try it out for yourself. Nobody's first strength program is ever a masterpiece, but writing your own program is something you'll improve upon rapidly and can practice for the rest of your life!